By Yun-hua Chen.
[Blending of genres] was a desire of mine to surprise the viewer, so that the audience does not settle into something and know what’s going to happen.”
Director Laurent Larivière’s second feature À Propos de Joan, premiered at the Berlinale Special Gala, is a French, German and Irish co-production. Isabelle Huppert plays the lead role of a retired publisher called Joan, who tells her life story to the camera while driving on a rainy night. Relying on unreliable memories to retroactively weave together a web of encounters in the past, she recollects different periods of her life through her relationship with three men: her first love in Ireland back in the 1970s, her son, played by Swann Arlaud, and the neurotic German writer and lover played by the German actor Lars Eidinger.
Oscillating between melodramatic and B-movie, humor, absurdity, real and surreal, À Propos de Joan feels like a fragmented, disorienting, and forced pell-mell of genres and tones. Director Laurent Larivière and actor Freya Mavor, who plays the role of Joan in the 70s and 80s, talked about filmmaking under the pandemic.
You had a very compact team of your own when shooting outside France. Can you talk about how you work together with local teams in each location?
Laurent Larivière (LL): Indeed, I only brought a very compact team with me when we shot outside France, a team of five people: cinematographer, sound engineer, first assistant, scriptwriter, and one of my producers. Each time when we filmed in Ireland or Germany, we collaborated with local technicians. At the beginning, it was also for financial reasons because we could not travel with the entire team. But then, I found that in fact, it was also an advantage. For example, the set designers in Dublin obviously know the 70s’ Dublin very well and could make different artistic proposals from what a French set designer would have made. It was thus an asset to work with local teams in these three countries.
How did the role of Lars Eidinger come into the picture? Is it because of the co-production with Germany?
LL: In fact, the co-production stemmed from the script. When I started writing the script with my co-writer François Decodts, we wanted to make a novel-like film spanning different periods over forty years in different countries, a film in which you could hear several languages. There is English, German, French, and a little bit Japanese in the end. When we were writing the story of this woman, we thought of these countries. So, the co-production was obvious because we needed to shoot in each of the countries.
Very quickly, we had the feeling that the film would be about fiction. How does fiction help each of us live on? We would tell ourselves stories about our lives. How do we remember things? Our recollections of the same story at the age of 15 and at the age of 45 would be completely different. Why do two siblings give two completely different accounts of the same event? We wanted to talk about that, about how our lives consist of fiction, how we are constantly inventing our lives, and how reality is very subjective. Everyone has their own perception and everything is extremely subjective. The character of the writer is there because we wanted to talk about fiction. We imagined that Joan would be an editor and that since she is an editor, we said to ourselves that we were going to create a love affair of hers with a writer. Very strong writer figures for us are Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, and more models like that.
During the pandemic people usually do not move around a lot. We could also see that a lot of films made during the pandemic were set in one place, or even in one room, and with one character. You seem to be doing exactly the opposite by filming À Propos de Joan in three different countries?
LL: François Truffaut said that he often wrote films that were against his previous film because we would not want to remake the same film. My previous film, I Am a Soldier (2015) is a linear film that has strong social concerns, so I wanted to get away from that with this film. And then came this novel-like idea composed of several countries spanning a wide timeframe. It was a very long process to write the script and finance the film. It took years and we didn’t know that Covid was coming. So, once we got the funding, there happened to be the vacuum, and things got pushed back. But we took it upon ourselves to do it despite the vacuum. And paradoxically, the vacuum also had positive effects. For example, Isabelle Huppert works a lot between films. The year when we planned to film À Propos de Joan, she was working a lot at the theater and was unavailable. And then the theater was closed because of Covid, so she had time and was available to do films. That’s how we got to film Isabelle Huppert much sooner than under normal circumstances, when we had to wait two years to schedule in with her. Another example was in Dublin with Freya Mavor and Éanna Hardwicke. We shot in an old pub that is maybe 200 years old, and there is no television there and no sign of modernity. It’s a very typical Dublin pub that’s a legend, and it’s always full. They have never had films made there. But then, since it was closed during the pandemic, we were able to shoot there. It’s such a beautiful setting. So, there were negative things and there was also something positive out of negative things. It has cost us a lot of money, so I was given much less shooting time. The important thing, though, is that the film exists now.
How was the collaboration with Isabelle Huppert for you, Freya?
Freya Mavor (FM): Isabelle and I hardly crossed each other’s path. Since we played the same character, we did not have any scenes together. We were rarely on set at the same time, but we met several times, for costume tests at first and then for a dinner together. Before the shooting, I have obviously watched a lot of her films and studied her performances from several moments of his life, to kind of just have an echo or be imbued with it. And then also, as I usually liked to do, I left room for fiction and imagination to embody this character, and together with Laurent’s vision about the character who has a lot of life, desire, imagination, and fantasy.
LL: Yes, completely. The flashbacks in the film are not flashbacks that distinguish memories from reality. So, as they are memories, they are an interpretation. And so, the memories of the character Joan at an earlier point in her life were a projection of the woman that she once was. It’s like how we had dreams about ourselves when we were young, and how we would compare reality with the way we remembered ourselves. I think there would be a very big difference. That’s what Freya was talking about. It’s about that fictional part, about the fact that we invent and reinvent ourselves. There was also something that was very important for me in the choice of Dimitri Doré, who played the teenage Nathan Verra, the adult version of the character that was played by Swann Arlaud. The character should be at the age of 16 to 17 at that time, but Dimitri was 23 years old. Physically he looks very young, very thin, and has something very childish inside him, but also, in fact, I found this maturity in the body’s youthfulness very beautiful because of the additional years that this body represents. And that is a matter of perception for the spectator. It grows like that and constitutes the material of the memory.
Isabelle Huppert has already portrayed a lot of remarkable roles. How did you discover different facets of her performance with such a starting point?
LL: That’s very complicated because we would think, what can we offer her? A different role? What was interesting, I think, for her and for me in this relationship, is that as we go through forty years of Joan’s life in the film, we go through different periods and different personalities. She can be blonde or dressed up in leather in Germany. Then she can be a little more pink. She changes physically and her character also changes as she goes through life events. In recent years, Isabelle Huppert has had a lot of roles where she could be quite withdrawn or quite cold, and some characters that are very enigmatic and mysterious. One of the challenges of the film was to bring her back to something more melodramatic, with a much more straightforward relationship with emotions. She has such an intelligence when it comes to understanding texts in the script. Directing actors for different scenes with different emotions is a conversation, an exchange. It was a very happy collaboration.
À Propos de Joan feels like a pell-mell of genres and styles. Why did you choose to do that?
LL: That was also a desire of mine to surprise the viewer, so that the audience does not settle into something and know what’s going to happen. The audience would have to remain constantly active and think, what’s going to happen now? What is being blended in here? So, there is melodrama with some humor. There is also a bit of burlesque despite drama and difficulties in life in the character played by Lars Eidinger, whose energy, life, and humor never gets sucked away by dark things.
In both your previous film I Am a Soldier and this film À Propos de Joan, there is a very strong woman character who has to face her past. What fascinates you most in this kind of women?
LL: It’s a good question. I wouldn’t know how to answer. I think, I like actresses very, very, very much. And I think that cinema doesn’t offer them enough great roles. Americans have made very serious studies on the number of roles given to women. Female characters are often nothing more than vindications of male characters. They often only talk about men and don’t have autonomous conversation between themselves on their own. I find this absolutely absurd. So, for me, it is about being able to provide actresses with roles that are autonomous, independent, and loving, like working mothers and multifaceted women. For me, this is an issue in contemporary cinema.
What does memory mean to you?
LL: This morning, I think it is what constitutes us because a human being is a memory in action.
FM: I would say absolutely the same thing. It’s the narrative of our life, a novel or a movie, or the truth of our life. And then, there is also this mixture of the real and the imaginary, of what really happened and how we really lived it, how we transform it into history, poetry, tragedy, trauma, and all that. It’s constantly that. That’s what is beautiful and complicated, poetic and sad about life. We don’t really have control over how we perceive our life and how we recollect the past. That is the theme of the film. I find it very beautiful and bitter sweet.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.